OUR OPINION: Diplomacy deserves better from Obama
You’ve heard the saying, attributed to English stage actress Beatrice Campbell, that describes the common willingness to look the other way as long as certain activities are kept private:
“I don’t care what these people do, so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.”
Well, in recent weeks in Washington, the cronyism behind too many of President Barack Obama’s appointments to U.S. ambassador posts got stripped bare so embarrassingly that it frightened the horses.
If the American people are lucky, there’ll be hell to pay. And Obama and every president after him will be pressured to change their ways.
The chief horse-frightener was one George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to a country with historic ties to North Dakota and Minnesota: Norway.
Tsunis’ chief qualification seems to be his service as a campaign fundraiser for the president.
Tsunis “made a fool of himself during his Senate confirmation hearings last month,” wrote Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, in a column.
“He was unaware of some of the most basic facts about Norway. He admitted never having set foot in the country, and he seemed to think that Norway, a monarchy, has a president.
“He also had no idea which political parties constituted Norway’s governing coalition, even though, as ambassador, he would be dealing with them.
“It seemed, as some later tweeted, that Tsunis had not even bothered to read the Wikipedia page for Norway.”
Then there is Colleen Bell, TV soap-opera producer, Obama fundraiser and our next ambassador to Hungary; Noah Bryson Mamet, for decades a Democratic Party functionary but soon-to-be ambassador to Argentina; and so on.
“And so on,” by the way, has meaning here. For while all modern presidents have doled out ambassadorships to cronies, Obama’s record stands alone.
“According to the American Foreign Service Association, President Obama has nominated more ‘political’ appointees for ambassadorships versus foreign service candidates than any president in at least the past 20 years,” ABC News reported in 2011.
Since then, the situation has gotten worse: “More than 53 percent of Obama’s second-term appointments were political, while 47 percent came from the career pool,” Newsmax.com reported this week.
“Overall, Obama’s number of political appointees has climbed to 37 percent and is expected to go higher before he leaves office.”
That contrasts with President Bill Clinton, 28 percent of whose diplomatic appointees were political, as well as with the reported 30 percent figure under President George W. Bush.
Importantly, neither academics nor reform-minded diplomats are calling on presidents to stop nominating political appointees.
Instead, the issue is the one that Bush tripped over when he named an unqualified Michael Brown — “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” — to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency:
Some posts require executives with useful skills. And ambassadorships are among them.
According to former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Jett, a professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs, nominees should be rated by a group such as the American Academy of Diplomacy as “well qualified, qualified or not qualified,” much like judges are.
“Maybe that would create enough potential public pressure that the president would be more careful about who he nominated,” Jett told The Washington Diplomat.
That practical and realistic reform sounds like a great start.